Budget cuts rock San Joaquin Valley cities, counties

Hard times will weaken local government spending this year by more than $190 million in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Victims include 1,135 people who no longer work for Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties and 20 of their cities, representing about 6 percent of the local government work force. Those remaining will miss at least 36,000 workdays because of furloughs this fiscal year, according to a Bee review.

In addition to forced, unpaid vacations, many government workers have seen their pay frozen or cut. And people who don't work for the government are witnessing longer lines and fewer hours at libraries, city hall and elsewhere, not to mention more brown lawns and overgrown bushes in parks, and untrimmed trees.

"We don't like having to make these kinds of cuts," said Lathrop Mayor Kristy Sayles, whose city has eliminated more than 23 percent of its work force, the highest proportion among all agencies in the region. "It's very unfortunate, but we have to make priorities. If everything is a priority, then nothing is."

The Bee's review of data submitted by the three counties and 20 cities found plunges of more than $88 million in their general funds, from the last fiscal year to the one that began July 1. Officials have much more control over that source, which covers many traditional government functions such as law enforcement, firefighting and parks.

For example, Gustine's take from property tax is down 25 percent from last year, a huge hit for a small city. Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour expects a 10 percent reduction this year, contributing to a general fund that is $13 million leaner than last year.

Sales tax is down virtually across the board. And most agencies are voicing disgust at state raids on local revenue.

"We'll never be out of this problem till the state stops stealing from counties and cities," Ridenour said.

Several cities seem to be faring better by having built healthy reserves during good times. They can draw on that money to help balance budgets suddenly out of whack from reduced income.

Atwater, for instance, has socked away the equivalent of 45 percent of its general fund budget, far exceeding its aggressive City Council policy of a 25 percent reserve. As a result, Atwater is the only city among 20 in The Bee review to post a slightly larger general fund this year (3.1 percent).

"We've done it by cutting everything in sight," said City Manager Greg Wellman, who operates without full-time personnel, risk management, information technology or public relations staff. The recession will force him to draw down reserves, Wellman warned, "so the last thing we're going to do is go out and start beating on our chest."

Breathing room in Turlock

Roy Wasden, who became city manager in Turlock just before its council approved a new budget in June, said he is grateful for a wise policy of strong reserves, about 40 percent this year, allowing breathing room.

Turlock isn't about to rest on its laurels, however. Its council slashed this year's general fund by 24.5 percent, by far the most in Stanislaus County.

Patterson leaders years ago set a standard of 15 percent reserves and largely resisted the temptation to bulk up on programs and staff during the recent building boom. The result: zero layoffs, one position reduced from full-time to part-time and the lowest drop in general fund (4.5 percent) in Stanislaus County.

Modesto, with a reserve of only 7 percent, doesn't have that flexibility.

Merced County looked to be in decent shape when its supervisors adopted a preliminary spending plan showing modest 2.7 percent growth. But its leaders opted to delay more than $18 million in cuts until a hearing scheduled for Tuesday.

Stanislaus County leaders, meanwhile, have been far more aggressive in slimming their work force and pursuing furloughs.

Stanislaus County laid off 153 employees, amounting to nearly half the total reported by all 23 agencies reviewed by The Bee. San Joaquin and Merced counties, by comparison, have laid off 27 and 10 workers, respectively.

Other job eliminations through retirement, buyouts and attrition pushed Stanislaus' count last year to 390, far surpassing San Joaquin's 85 and Merced's 149.

"We're very proactive and aggressive in how we manage our budget restrictions," said Rick Robinson, Stanislaus' chief executive officer. "We tend to make the difficult decisions when we need to make them."

Modesto leaders say they cut deep and early, too. "The mayor and me made a commitment from the very beginning that we didn't want to do this (huge reductions) every three months," said Greg Nyhoff, Modesto's city manager.

Unpaid time off

More than 1,300 Stanislaus workers will help balance the county budget by taking nearly 17,000 mandatory furlough days this year. Merced County's figure was not available, while San Joaquin has yet to agree with its unions.

Most of Stockton's 1,526 workers, meanwhile, will take 12 furlough days this year. If the city had agreed to compute the effect, it could have pushed the north valley's total to well more than 50,000 workdays to be missed this year, with untold losses in productivity.

The north valley's $190 million loss in spending would have been more severe if not for federal stimulus props.

In fact, while only Atwater reports a gain in general fund spending, eight cities (Tracy, Waterford, Patterson, Atwater, Ripon, Newman, Gustine and Hughson) report larger overall budgets. They include spending for capital improvement projects, a prime target for stimulus money.

For example, Hughson's overall budget will grow 101 percent thanks to a $23 million stimulus grant to expand its sewage plant. Newman expects to build a $3 million downtown plaza, while most of the others are doing major water or sewer projects, or both.

Federal law enforcement grants last month rescued the jobs of eight police officers in Modesto who had been laid off four weeks before, plus two officers in Riverbank, and allowed Modesto to hire five more. Stockton police avoided 55 layoffs through contract concessions.

Other findings from The Bee review:

Although Livingston and Dos Palos did not share data, Merced County's other cities appear to be taking a larger hit in their general funds, averaging 16.6 percent, than elsewhere (12.2 percent average in Stanislaus County, 7.2 percent in San Joaquin). Gustine and Los Banos are suffering reductions of 26 percent and 27.3 percent, respectively.

Larger cities not surprisingly reported more layoffs in sheer numbers since the recession started (40 in Stockton, 27 in Modesto, 22 in Turlock, 19 in Ceres). Several reported no layoffs (Escalon, Ripon, Manteca, Tracy, Hughson, Patterson, Waterford, Atwater and Gustine).

Only Ripon, Waterford and Gustine kept all of their jobs last year. Cities losing the highest share of their work force for any reason, including retirements and buyouts, were Lathrop (23.4 percent), Los Banos (15.7 percent), Atwater (13.3 percent), Merced (12.9 percent) and Stockton (10.2 percent).

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.